This the story of Ivory Coast’s descent into ethnic cleansing, breakup and chaos, powerfully told by Ahmadou Kourouma, in the deceptively simply form of a fable.
Birahima, an ex-child soldier in neighboring Liberia, wanders the countryside, from Christian south to Islamicized north, seeking safety from death squads out to kill Muslims. His companion is the beautiful Fanta, several years his senior, and far better educated. She won’t become his lover, which is his dream, but she schools him on the history of their country from the colonial era through the post-independence period, delivering a series of remarkably effective homilies. Her language and Birahima’s, each very different from the other, is wonderfully evocative.
“Within the framework of French West Africa, Cote d’Ivoire was ruled by lieutennant governors. In 1934, the lieutennant governer master of Ivory Coast was a man named Reste. Reste was young, dynamic, full of initiative, and harbored big ambitions for the colony. The earth was rich, it must be exploited for the metropolis, France… He brought peasants from France to farm the country. This farming could only be done by pickaxe, by hoe and by shovel. That is to say, only by hand. No machinery had been invented yet that could work in tropical forests. What was required was manual labor, lots of manual labor, courageous manual labor… Governor Reste was free to do whatever he felt needed to be done. He began by setting up villages of people brought from Burkina in the Ivorian forest. Most importantly, he decreed a system of forced labor for the north of Ivory Coast, and for the portion of Burkina that he attached to Ivory Coast. That is to say, forced labor was decreed what what we call today the Dioula-speaking region.
The sytem of forced labor is nothing less than slavery under a different name. This slavery without the name is the most contemptible, shameful and contrary to human rights thing that was done under colonization. The youths who were conscripted, once recuited, were kept under careful guard for months of forced labor. They were sent south in freight cars that were kept sealed, even with temperatures reaching 45 degrees (C). These are the same cars, without the heat, that the Germans used to send the Jews to labor camps during the last war. Forced labor assured the French peasants a supply of high quality, cheap workers. The (French) planters and entrepreneurs didn’t care about the health of these workers. The laborers dropped like flies. No matter, they were replaced every few months.”
“Me, little Birahima, I’ve reflected on this and thought about it lengthily. There are two kinds of white men. Those who think that blacks are stinking liars, and believe that even when they put on cologne, think they still smell like a fart. They steer clear of blacks and treat us like asses. These are the partisans of apartheid, like the Petain crowd during the war. Others think that blacks are born innocent and friendly, always smiling, always ready to share whatever they have. They feel we must be protected from the bad white
folks. Those are the ones who are called Communists.”
Passages translated from the French by Howard French.